Jitunze’s Journey in Promoting Mental Wellness in Kenya.

Tracy Anne Bonareri

“Avant’s” journey is a testament to the transformative impact of Jitunze Wellness in Kenya’s mental health landscape. Through monthly meetups, WhatsApp discussions, and innovative events like the Kenya Men Awards, Jitunze promotes open dialogue and community support. Led by Grace Kinuthia, they advocate for preventative mental health care, challenge stigma, and provide accessible services. With training for psychologists and partnerships like BYON8, Jitunze ensures holistic well-being for all, emphasizing the importance of proactive mental health support.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 116 million Africans grappled with mental health conditions according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The pandemic and the stressors that came with it led to a 25% global increase in depression and anxiety. This data stretches across various demographics, causing urgent calls for individuals to speak up when overwhelmed. However, statements like “Man up, don’t be weak,” “Boys don’t cry,” and “Real men don’t need help” discouraged men from speaking up as they equate mental health to a form of weakness rather than a human experience.

Data from the 2022 KNBS Women and Men Facts and Figures report shows more men are suffering from mental health at 56.9% and 43.1 respectively.

Ivanna Waweru, a psychologist practicing in Kenya, points out that the shaming and judgment faced by men often discourage them from seeking mental health support. However, she emphasizes that true strength is acknowledging when one needs help. This feeling resonates with “Avant” (not his real name), who found his inner strength during challenging experiences in 2019.

“In 2019, my daughter, who was living with cerebral palsy, tragically lost her life in an accident. My wife also sustained injuries to her left hand during the incident. Shortly after, my father-in-law passed away. To add fuel to the fire, I was unemployed during this period. It was a difficult time for me,” Avant recalls.

Given all he had been through, he reached out to Jitunze Wellness, a social enterprise dedicated to making preventive and curative mental health services accessible to all while offering post-mental health care. He met the founder, Grace Kinuthia, in 2012 when she was still a psychology student and was now seeking her out professionally.

“When I got there, I discovered a group of men from various walks of life willing to speak, supported by psychologists. This environment eased my mind, as witnessing their willingness to discuss significant and seemingly trivial issues created a safe space for men to open up,” Avant states. “Additionally, the support I received from friends who visited me, our meetings in town, and their fundraising efforts for the burial were key in helping me overcome my struggles at that moment.”

Source: Jitunze Wellness.

Avant admits that before 2019, mental health was not on his list of priorities. However, his experiences since then and interactions with the men’s group have taught him lessons about the importance of mental well-being.

“Before, I didn’t see mental health as important. However, challenges, such as my wife’s accident and surgery affecting her left hand and struggling to balance work and home life, my perspective changed.”

Avant observes that what sets Jitunze apart is that the group is about men and conversations first, then mental health second. This was deliberate, according to Grace, during the conceptualization of the forums aimed at equipping individuals with essential mental health skills.

“We organize events that aren’t specifically branded as mental health gatherings where we discuss various topics such as relationships. During these discussions, we address crucial issues such as stress management in relationships, anger management, and effective decision-making, as these skills greatly impact one’s mental health,” Grace said.

In 2023, Jitunze launched its first Kenya Men Awards, celebrating men who empower their fellow men.

“In 2023, we started a men’s program including monthly meetups to discuss life and address challenges. Additionally, we created a WhatsApp group for ongoing discussions. Collaborating with a US partner, we hosted our inaugural men’s award ceremony, prioritizing men making a positive impact and empowering others, an overlooked aspect in Kenya. Our greatest achievement was organizing a free nomination event with free attendance, which successfully brought people together.

“We’re planning to make this an annual event, with the next one scheduled for December this year. We aim to continue providing an open platform for discussion, supported by a panel of psychologists. Moreover, we encouraged women to join these conversations. The success of these gatherings is encouraging, especially considering the typical reluctance of men to engage in such discussions without external motivation,” Grace stated.

KEMEN event 2023. Source: Jitunze Wellness.

The greatest drawback to progress made with a client is linking them with the wrong psychologist. To ensure individuals are connected with the right professionals, Jitunze provides training to all the psychologists they collaborate with. Grace sheds light on the importance of the program.

“Training occurs after graduation or before entering the job market, as classroom learning often differs from practical experience. Converting theoretical knowledge into practical skills can be challenging, so we provide opportunities for psychologists to learn, network, and receive mentorship. This process encourages self-awareness, helps them identify their strengths, and facilitates specialization.”

Jitunze has also gone the extra mile to cushion individuals from the costs that come with mental health support. They have partnered with a telehealth app named BYON8 to provide mental health services using insurance. This is a significant milestone as mental health services are not covered by most insurance companies and the services are considered expensive. 

Grace reflects with a smile but acknowledges the challenges they’ve faced to reach their current position. She vividly recalls a moment in 2018, during the startup phase, when they pitched to potential investors and were denied funding because of the lack of understanding of the importance of mental health. This was a challenge because people do not understand that one does not seek mental health services only when they are unwell, sometimes it could be for a simple evaluation.

Currently, the focus in Kenya is on curative mental health care. However, Jitunze Wellness has taken the lead in advocating for a preventative mental health care approach, challenging the conventional methods. Ivanna agrees with this approach and argues that people should not wait before the rubber meets the road to seek out mental health care.

“Engage with therapists as you journey through life, not just when crises arise. Therapy helps in self-discovery and personal development. With preventative therapy, you select a therapist in a calm, relaxed environment, making things even better.”

Avant and Ivanna have interacted with Jitunze on a client and partner basis respectively and appreciate their contribution to society but acknowledge that there is more work to be done to further reduce the figures highlighted above.

“Mental health discussions often occur in corporate settings but they should extend beyond boardrooms and offices. Leaders in this field should consider hosting events in places like clubs or at sports games where more people gather. By breaking down conversations in these accessible spaces, we can reach a wider audience and address real struggles where they occur.

“Let’s make mental health engaging. Instead of traditional webinars, let’s create interactive sessions that encourage participation and conversation. The goal is to inspire people to share their experiences and thoughts openly,” Ivanna adds.

Interested individuals can reach Grace, Ivanna and the team at Jitunze Wellness through their website and social media platforms.

In one of his nuggets of wisdom on mental health issues, Avant says, “Feeling sad is natural, but don’t let it to consume you. Take steps to address your concerns one by one, using the resources available to you, and work towards overcoming them.”

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